Skating on thick ice: Hockey becoming more popular at OU

Upon entering the Ohio University campus, one may feast their eyes on a number of different things. Coming in from the Richland Bridge atop the Hocking River, two large buildings tower over everything near it.

The Convocation Center (“The Convo” for short) and Peden Stadium, two monumental pieces of the school’s campus sit adjacent to one another with just a stoplight interjecting the diagonal walking path between them.  These venues play host to some of the more popular sports on campus and in America, that being football, Men’s and Women’s basketball and volleyball.

However, they are not the only sports the school has to offer. Sure, soccer and field hockey play behind the Convo, while baseball and softball each have their own respective fields next to each other on the river.

But hidden underneath the shade of the trees and the busy agenda of the every day college atmosphere, there is another site of sport which a different set of Ohio Bobcats call home.

Bird Arena, the home venue for the Ohio hockey team, is just a 50-yard walk from Baker Center, the nucleus of daily activities at OU and the most popular building on campus. Considering the facility is not too far away from being an eye soar with plain, glass windows and plethora of black, the building doesn’t make students very aware on a daily basis, despite being so close to all the action.

But that is starting to change.

At any college, sports are taken very seriously. In Athens, there is an excessive amount of young sports journalists that cover everything from tennis to ultimate Frisbe and local high-school athletics.

At OU, the sport of hockey has always been the underdog to student favorites like football and basketball. But that is changing for a few reasons.

Ohio hockey will enter their 59th season of action starting this September, and the accolades they have recorded in that time span is very impressive. Last season, Ohio finished with a record of 29-9-2, a winning percentage of 73. It was a season that Coach Sean Hogan called, “a really good year.” 29 victories in 40 games would be something to write home about in any other sport, but for hockey it’s just another day at the office.

The last time Ohio failed to win 20 games in one season was 1992, before some of their current players were even born. You’d have to go back to the Ronald Reagan administration to find the last season Ohio lost more game than they won (1986).

Success sells tickets, which is exactly what Bird Arena is seeing in their attendance levels in the previous years. Kelsey Surmacz, a Recreational Assistant at Bird Arena and former beat writer for the team has noticed an obvious change in popularity. “When I was writing for the Post as a freshman and covering the team, there would be a pretty large crowd every game and the occasional sellout,” Surmacz said. “Now, in just two years, we nearly sell out every game, there is almost always a standing room-only crowd and there have even been a few times we had to stop letting people in. I think most of the credit has to go to the success of the team.”

Coach Hogan continues to try to drive the idea of hockey to the campus and social media, too. “I believe we have increased in popularity since the time I started here, which is a great sign. I was really happy this year with amount of capacity crowds,” Hogan said. “Our on-ice promotions and game-day experience continues to improve and our team has really made the effort in connecting with people on social media.”

Ohio’s 382 wins over the last 13 seasons combined is impressive, but it has been only recently where the attendance for home games has shot up.

Pointstreaks, a statistical website for many uses in athletics, tracked attendance for the entire ACHA conference last season. The results were terrific for Bobcats, as their final tally was just under 22 thousand, the highest in team history. That count was good enough for seventh overall in the division, a fair slot considering they fell behind hockey powerhouses like Robert Morris University, North Dakota State and Ramapo College of New Jersey, all three of which had their attendance hit six figures.

Coach Hogan likes to thank those rising numbers in attendance to a few factors. One of which would be their amount of home games. Ohio played 25 of their 40 games in the friendly confines of Bird Arena in Athens last season, second only in the ACHA to Iowa State, who played 26.

“We are fortunate that a lot of teams enjoy coming to Bird Arena, which gives us the opportunity to play more games at home. Having 25 games at home is an advantage for us and people like coming because of our unique atmosphere and great fan base,” Hogan explained.

But success can only get you so far in terms of gaining popularity and filling out the seats on a game-by-game basis. It could be because hockey is gaining popularity in the United States, something assistant coach Kyle Schussler believes since coming to Ohio.

A native of Canada, Schussler explains that, “hockey is certainly at the forefront of the media, marketing and everyday life up there (Canada). The United States seems to have more athletic emphasis on other sports like football and baseball, but there is undoubtedly a rise in popularity, and I’ve seen it first hand here at Ohio.”

Schussler credits the fans for wanting to get more information on hockey, because it’s not as easy to attain it in America. “Canada pushes hockey to the public and you can’t help but be exposed to it (highlights, stats, etc.). In the United States, however, there is more need to seek out that information, like watching TSN (Canada) rather than ESPN.”

As far as the Buckeye State is concerned, Schussler sees the future very promising in terms of hockey participation and popularity, “In my two-year tenure with Ohio University, I have definitely witnessed the passion Athens has for hockey, and it shows no signs of slowing down. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s evident there are a greater number of Ohio-born players that are playing at the highest levels of junior, college and professional hockey.”

In a football-driven state, the growth of hockey love is a good sign. But, how do you dig deeper? How do you get the everyday student (that doesn’t know about the success of Ohio hockey) into Bird Arena on game night?

Avid hockey fan Scotty Moore has an interesting theory, and it’s something that college campuses all across the nation bring to the table: options. In college, students are introduced to plenty of new options in the form of athletics. Especially in that state of Ohio, if a millennial student is heading to Athens for school, it could very well be the first time hockey is even offered as a way of entertainment.

“I came from a small town in Southwestern Ohio near Cincinnati, and hockey is very limited there. Sure, the Blue Jackets are in Columbus, but Cincinnati does not have an NHL team that I grew up seeing on sports highlights every night like I did the (Cincinnati) Reds and (Cincinnati) Bengals,” Moore said.

Moore, like many other fans, all seem to agree on the consensus of a fun atmosphere at Bird Arena. “Since going to my first hockey game my sophomore year, I’ve been to more hockey games than any other sport on campus,” Moore said. “My high school was nowhere near big enough to have hockey, so I had never been to a game before at any level. It’s definitely something different for college kids who were late being introduced to the sport.”

One major difference between attending a hockey game at OU compared to other sports is that hockey charges for admission, other sports allow students to attend for free.

Surmacz doesn’t view this as a problem, however, opting to look at the positive side of charging for admission. “There is an admission fee, but the people who show up at these games really care about their guys on the ice, and they are very passionate about the tradition of OU hockey and the sport itself,” Surmacz said.

With over half of their games at home, coach Schussler also credits strategic scheduling as a prime cause of the growing numbers of attendance. “We have seen incredible alumni and staff support over the last two years, and scheduling has been an important aspect with notable home weekends for us falling on Ohio University specialty weekends,” Schussler said.

Most home contests for the Bobcats start around 7 p.m. on the weekends, something that has helped attendance grow because home football and basketball games are played earlier in the afternoon, meaning hockey avoids having to compete for attendance with other sports.

The fact that Ohio University is filled with sports-crazed fans and aspiring journalists has been a giant stepping stone in attendance growth, too.

Student sections are immensely popular and entertaining in Athens. Basketball and football each have the “O-Zone” while hockey’s student section is dubbed “Gang Green,” and has been getting more popular ever year.

“More guys are coming to OU and looking to play hockey. And, student organizations pertaining to the hockey team, such as Gang Green, have added to the excitement and promotional value of the team,” Surmacz said. “This may not be a clear, pinpoint reason why they are garnering more and more attention, but it is certainly happening, and it is great for both the program and the campus.”

So how does Hockey sustain such a boom in attendance for years to come?

For starters, winning 20-plus games (like they’ve done for the last 23 seasons) would be a good start. But it’s also about getting the word out. As popularity for collegiate and professional hockey grows, so will the youth movement for the sport, and the majority of small, rural public schools in Ohio makes hockey a difficult sport to find.

Coach Hogan took the initiative to get the word out as soon as he became coach for the Bobcats. Last season, the team won the National Community Service Award for their work in the Athens community and with the Athens Youth Hockey Association. “Our philosophy has always been that it is not the responsibility of the community to support our hockey program, but our responsibility to give the community a reason to support us,” Hogan said of his team’s extra effort to give back.

Coupling massive amounts of community service work as well as having a successful team has allowed Hogan to really jumpstart his team in just a few short years.

Despite the Bobcats losing in the first round of the playoffs last season, it was still a 29-win campaign and a 10th straight trip to the postseason, the longest span of playoff appearances in club history.

As Surmacz proudly points out, “Hockey has always been a successful sport at OU–in fact, hockey is the winningest athletic program in history at Ohio University.”

The glory days of Ohio hockey began with the arrival of coach Craig McCarthy (now a professor at OU) in 1993. The team won 31 games in his first season, a franchise-best mark at the time. What followed was a three-year run unlike anything seen by a sport at Ohio University. The team won 91 games and lost just 12 from 1994-’96 and brought home three Division I ACHA National Championships.

What McCarthy was able to start back in the early 90s is what has continued today: a winning atmosphere and growing number of support. The way the ‘Cats are playing, promoting and succeeding, they are continuing to build the brand of hockey and increase the sport’s popularity in the state of Ohio and  Athens County.

And they’ve done all this for awhile, without the knowledge of some, just a 50-yard walk from the most popular building on campus.

@scdermer4

Photo: athensohio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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